Fan Fiction: A Revisionist History And Future

from the it's-crap-cause-I-said-so dept

For fans, the ability to expand upon and share their understanding of their favorite books is an important past time. People can spend days, months, years talking about their favorite books and eating up any new information that comes their way. Sometimes this new information comes from the original creator, but other times it comes from the fans themselves in the form of fan fiction. Fan fiction is a growing area of fan engagement that many authors and creators have learned to love and embrace.

There are some people, though, who just absolutely hate it. Take Ewan Morrison as an example. In a recent essay on the subject of fan fiction, he doesn't hold back his feelings on the matter.
It may seem like a joke, but for many the rise of fanfic is "the end of the world". Fanfic is seen as the lowest point we've reached in the history of culture – it's crass, sycophantic, celebrity-obsessed, naive, badly written, derivative, consumerist, unoriginal – anti-original. From this perspective it's a disaster when a work of fanfic becomes the world's number one bestseller and kickstarts a global trend.
This is absolutely amazing. While many writers try to hide their disapproval of a subject, Ewan decides to just lay it all out in the open so that you know right off what to expect from his little rant. But what exactly has his panties in a twist? Fifty Shades of Grey.
As we all know, Fifty Shades of Grey, originated as a piece of fanfic based on the Twilight series. Since it hit 31 million sales in 37 countries worried voices are asking: is this the beginning of an era in which fanfic overthrows original creation?
Come on. How can fan fiction produce anything of worth? Am I right? Well, Ewan thinks he is right. He just can't believe that anyone could turn fan fiction into a profitable career. Fan fiction is some horrible blight on the entertainment industry, at least to him. Nothing good can come from it, right?

Ewan decides that now is the time to show off just how little he knows about fan fiction in general. He starts off with a nice bit of revisionist history.
If one sees fanfic as "the work of amateurs retelling existing stories", then one would have to conclude that the number one book in the middle ages – the Bible – was a work of fanfic, as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were non-professionals retelling the same story about the same character. However, such a definition of fanfic is skewed historically. There were no fans in the middle ages, and there were also no authors.
Isn't this lovely. There were no authors in the middle ages. Since there were no authors, then that means there were no fans. All those works that we look back upon came out of ether for us to enjoy. Since there were no authors and no fans, there was no fan fiction. Fans, authorship, fan fiction, all of this is simply a modern construct.
If we see fanfic as "the reworking of another author's characters" then this form really only appears for the first time in history with the invention of legal authorship in the 18th century through copyright and intellectual property laws, after the invention of the printing press. After all, you can't have derivative works or copies if there are no regulations over what constitutes original works, or separates ownership from theft.
Notice the nice equating of fan fiction with theft. But don't let that distract you from the main discussion points here. You see, authorship never existed until modern copyright law was written and passed in order to create such a role in society. Back then, no one was creative. Everyone just stole ideas from everyone else. It was just one big swirling miasma of derivative characters occupying the same roles. No one exercised any kind of real creativity because of this. It makes sense right? We honor Homer and Shakespeare because they were just thieves who stole the work of others to become famous.

From here, Ewan goes on to share a bunch more about what he thinks of fan fiction and the different types of it. One common theme running through this breakdown is a bitter distaste for pornographic fan fiction. He even lets this get in the way of describing slash fic correctly as one commenter to his rant explains.
The first point is a semantic quibble, but it really gets on my nerves. 'Slash' does not refer to all pornographic fanfiction. There may have been a time when it did. Having spent ten years in fandom, I have never heard it used to describe anything but stories about m/m relationships. (A story does not actually have to have sexual content to be considered slash. A story can be slash without so much as a kiss if it involves a male character who is attracted to another male character.)
When you are revising history to fit your preconceived notions, accuracy can get in the way. So perhaps we can just let this one slide. Maybe not.

Another interesting point in his rant is when it comes to crossover fan fiction. He just can't understand why anyone would want to cross universes to create a story.
The most postmodern and aesthetically bankrupt of all fanfic, is when two well-known franchises from the same genre are "crossed over". So you get BattleStar Gallactica, crossed with Star Trek, which results in the story: Star Trek: Way of the Battlestar – author Carson Napier.

One of the problems with this sub-genre is that narratives and character motivations have to be warped to fit convoluted, meaningless mergings.
That he even makes this complaint shows that he doesn't even realize that even original creators have a hard time justifying the crossover conflict. When was the last time an Avenger vs X-Men comic line actually made sense or just wasn't a shout out to fans of certain characters? What about anything DC vs Marvel. Shoot, the DC vs Mortal Kombat game was one big convoluted meaningless merging. And all of those were authorized mergings. If the original creators have such a hard time making a crossover meaningful, why hold fans up to a higher bar?

Then he jumps right back into his absolute hate of Fifty Shades of Grey. After all, that is what spawned this rant, so he can't let it off easy.
Fifty Shades is actually a very generic work of Twilight fanfic from amongst tens of thousands already created. It is, in fact, a piece of "AU het slash Twilight fic", and as we've seen, in all slash fic, sex and sexual violence are the predictable components of the genre.

We should not consider EL James an author in the conventional sense for the same reasons that we wouldn't call someone from before the invention of copyright an author. Rather, her books are like medieval lore – in a sense she doesn't own the content.
To be honest, I haven't read Fifty Shades nor do I have a desire to do so. However, to make the claim that no creativity went into creating the work is beyond ignorant. Despite what he claims, all reports, that I have read, make it pretty clear that it was not simply a location and name change of Twilight. It was massively successful because it was something unique that people wanted. Of course this massive success lets Ewan break into another rant against how it became successful.
The only innovation is not in the story itself but in the delivery system that launched it – Amazon KDP. Without Kindle the book(s) would never have escaped the gravitational pull of fanfic sites and would not have been able to earn their author any money. KDP, has become the Enchanted Duplicator that has monetised fanfic and propelled it into the market. The historic difference, the point we have just crossed, is that now, through the mechanism of epub, fanfic is heading towards becoming the cultural dominant.
Amazon, with its e-publishing service, is what made successful fan fiction possible. Without Amazon, such fan fiction would have been relegated to the various basements and dodgy parlors of the internet. According to Ewan, this outbreak of self publishing is only going to lead to one gigantic mess of fan fiction feeding off each other spawning new works. This is going to be the fall of modern culture.
It is possible that with the enchanted duplication systems of fan-based epub, we might have arrived at a point in history where we've accumulated enough cultural material from the past for fans to remix indefinitely, and as they can now sell this content to each other this becomes a boom industry where none existed before. However, the point where fans become the creators, and a derivative work becomes the new original is also the point at which the culture industries stop needing to create anything new. Fanfic begets fanfic, which then in turn becomes mainstream which then begets further fanfic and so on. When we reach that point our future will not be fifty, but fifty thousand, shades of grey.
What is worth pointing out to Ewan is that we already have this within the established industries. As we have written about many times in the past, everything is a remix of something else. There is no 100% vacuum for created art these days. Someone is inspired by or copies aspects of another person's work. Shoot, some industries are blatant with their remixing of old works. Whether it is endless sequels and remakes of movies, or the dozens of first person shooter games released each year. But this is how culture is built. It is built on the work of those that came before.

Now, if I may add my own little bit of history to the mix, fan fiction, or more accurately derivative works, is an important part of what made our culture what it is today. I am going to bring in two examples of derivative works from the past that had massive impacts on the state of culture today.

The first is Nosferatu. We wrote about this film in the past. Bram Stoker's estate had refused to assign the rights to Albin Grau so that he could make his film. Instead, he went about creating the film anyway, making many changes to vampire lore in the process. Today, much of what we apply to vampire lore comes from Albin's movie not Bram's book. This is example one of the positive cultural impact derivative works can have.

My second example is that of Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss (thanks io9 for pointing this out). In this article, Cracked points out six major sci-fi tropes that exist today that have their roots in this unauthorized fan sequel. Of these we have the handheld ray gun, space battles, the space suit, and aliens building the pyramids. If we didn't know better, one would be excused for thinking this book was the result of a time traveling fan of H.G. Wells. Without this book, we may not have had much of what we consider sci-fi today.

So despite what Ewan claims, fan fiction and derivative works can be an important part of the spread of culture. It is how communities are born and grow. Without the ability of fans to expand on the work of their favorite creators, many would become bored as the content would become stale. When they become bored, they stop buying the works of that creator. Why would we want that to happen to creators?

Filed Under: culture, fan fiction, history

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  1. icon
    sehlat (profile), 28 Aug 2012 @ 1:16pm

    Re: Fanfiction Problems

    The only way to find good fanfics is either to read them yourself and judge them so, or find a good forum and pay attention to who says what about which work, and keep a track record on their recommendations.

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